Parents, Lawmakers Push For Later Public School Start Times

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
By Doug Page

Mary Hamaker, a Southborough mom, lawyer, and president of the Massachusetts chapter of Start School Later, wants a law preventing the Commonwealth’s public high schools from starting classes earlier than 8:30 a.m., saying it’s the remedy to a significant health issue.

“The pillars of being healthy include eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep,” Hamaker said. “We are delivering sleep-deprived children for four or more years, at a time when their brains are completely rewiring themselves. The level of stress and the pressure to perform is so much higher now, and when you’re sleep deprived, it’s harder.”

Hamaker said she was scheduled to meet with a Beacon Hill legislator, whom she refused to name, about the proposed law, and the issue is gaining traction. A year ago, State Rep. Paul McMurtry (D-Dedham) filed a bill that, if passed, would form a commission to study and recommend daily start times for Massachusetts public elementary and secondary schools.

“We have a moral obligation to the young citizens of the Commonwealth to give them the best advantages of success, and if starting school after 8:30 in the morning will give them that advantage, we should at least be talking about it,” McMurtry said. “[My proposal] doesn’t call for a change. It calls for a review of the medical and scientific research to see if moving back the start time helps kids succeed.”

McMurtry said he wasn’t sure when his colleagues in the state House of Representatives would vote on the bill.

With 17 chapters in Massachusetts and more than another 80 in the United States, Start School Later, a volunteer organization, is experiencing growing interest in its grassroots efforts to make school start times later.

“The momentum for change is growing,” said Start School Later Spokeswoman Jenny Cooper Silverman, a Wayland mom and nurse. “Start School Later has seen an increase in the number of inquiries on this issue and the number of media articles reporting on start time discussions in [school] districts around the country.”

The organization recently announced the opening of its 100th chapter — in Fairbanks, Alaska.

By Start School Later’s count, more than 10 Massachusetts public high schools have adjusted their start times, the last two being Ashland High School (from 7:30 a.m. to 8:20 a.m.) and Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m.). Both introduced later start times this academic year.

The most controversial vote to change school start times was in Boston, where the city’s School Committee last month voted to move up start times at more than 80% of its schools for the 2018-2019 academic year. Many parents, upset that some Boston elementary schools will end their day at 1:15 p.m., say their children shouldn’t have to go to school earlier so the city’s high schools can start after 8 a.m. Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang said he will review the School Committee’s decision.

In November, Burlington’s School Committee agreed to move its high school start time for the 2018-2019 academic year up by more than an hour, to 8:35 a.m.

“The biggest reason for the change was the Youth Risk Behavior Report, which showed an increase in depression and risky behavior among teens and big connections with staying up late,” said Patrick Larkin, Burlington’s assistant public schools superintendent. “The research shows [teenagers] can’t get to sleep earlier than 11 p.m. We were concerned about the health of the kids.”

Start School Later’s argument is buttressed by numerous medical studies, and at least one economic one, reporting that teenagers aren’t getting enough sleep. Critics of early start times say the situation is not only detrimental to teens’ physical and mental health, but is also hindering their ability to learn and, potentially, their future earnings as adults.

The American Academy of Pediatrics took up the cause three years ago, saying it “urges middle and high schools to aim for start times that allow students to receive 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours of sleep a night,” which it says likely translates into a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later.

Other medical organizations supporting a later start time include the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the National Association of School Nurses, and the Society of Pediatric Nurses.

The Sports Medicine Committee of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), which sponsors athletic activities in nearly 400 private and public high schools in the Bay State, also endorsed later school start times, saying: “Student-athletes in these schools [with later start times] are more likely to perform better, which can lead to reduced incidence of injury.”

The most recent study supporting later start times, from the RAND Corporation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based research organization, noted that up to 60% of “U.S. middle and high school students” sleep less than what’s recommended for their age, 8-10 hours a night.

This lack of sleep, the RAND study said, can lead to a number of adverse outcomes for teenagers, “including poor physical and mental health, behavioral problems, suicidal [ideas] and attempts, attention and concentration problems, and suboptimal academic performance.”

The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, estimated that moving school start times for middle and high school kids could lead to increased earnings of $17,500 per student, over the course of their lifetime.

The counter argument

But not everyone buys into the belief that teenage health problems are solved by delaying the start of the school day.

“When schools try it out and collect the data to see if it makes a difference — where they actually tracked before and after within a school district and measured how much sleep teenagers were getting before and after [the adjustment in start time] — teens got more sleep the first year [following the change]. but a year later, they had shifted their bedtime to later at night and were getting the same amount of sleep,” said Ian Campbell, a researcher at the University of California at Davis Sleep Lab.

He cited a 2010-2104 study, published in 2016 in the Oxford University Press journal Sleep, which examined how a delayed start time impacted students at a Glens Falls, N.Y., high school.

There’s “no evidence to suggest that a change in school start times from earlier to later was associated with either improvement or decline in academic performance,” the study’s authors wrote, and “there’s no compelling evidence to indicate that the change in school start times resulted in a positive shift in standardized [test] assessment scores.”

The authors also learned that in subsequent years, following the change in start time, Glens Falls high school students delayed going to bed and, eventually, all gains in sleep time were “followed by a loss of those gains.”

Bay State high schools & start times

This academic year, Ashland High School changed its start time from 7:30 a.m. to 8:20 a.m.

“The faculty are saying [first-period students are] talking zombies, but that’s better than being just zombies,” Ashland Public Schools Superintendent James Adams reports, noting the move was prompted by more than a concern about adequate sleep. “We looked at student health and well-being, and their stress and anxiety. We had a number of hospitalizations among the students. We looked at the MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey and what were some of the causes.”

Among the causes: “Electronics, homework, and kids being overscheduled,” he said. Prior to changing the start time, the first school bus pickup for an Ashland High student was 6:15 a.m.

With the new start time, Ashland tweaked its bus run so middle school and high school students started riding together. In addition, some bus pickup times were adjusted, so students who wanted to eat breakfast at school could do so before class.

Sharon adjusted its high school start time from 7:25 a.m. to 8:05 a.m. seven years ago, but Principal Jose Libano says it’s not the only approach to making kids healthier.

“There are other topics and issues that need to be addressed that are equally important,” he said. “Are you giving kids the tools to cope with stress and their schedules? In Sharon, we built time in the day, every day, when our kids can get homework done and see their guidance counselor or a teacher.”

Libano acknowledged that despite the reported benefits, changing high school or middle school start times is not universally supported.

“When people object to it, it’s all about the inconvenience,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘It impacts my child care, my drive to work.’ But the goal is to create healthier kids, and that supersedes all of the issues around convenience. That said, you’ll never see a high school revert back to an early start time.”

People also object to delaying a start time because they think it will impact sports, forcing the school to dismiss all teams earlier so they arrive at games on time.

“The team that gets dismissed [early] the most often is the golf team, and that’s because we’re at the mercy of the courses,” Libano said. “But we have a rotating schedule so the dismissal doesn’t hit the same class every time.”

Some advocates say a later start time will reduce tardiness, but Ed MacDonald, Eastham’s Nauset Regional High School principal, added: “As usual, kids acclimate, and it’s the same old, same old. [In the years following the change] the tardiness rate went right back up.” Nauset changed its start time from 7:25 a.m. to 8:35 a.m. five years ago.

While MacDonald said the later start time has been beneficial to his students, he added: “There are kids who are very motivated, and you could start school at 6 a.m. and they’d be fine. There are those who are middle of the road and they won’t perform as well some days, and then there are those that, no matter what you do, it is what it is.”

Cellphones, teens, and parents

A 2006 National Sleep Foundation poll said 87% of all teens were sleep deprived, meaning they weren’t getting 8-10 hours of sleep each night. Nearly 10 years later, Stanford University Medical School offered a reason: 92% of all teenagers own a cellphone, and more than 70% use them in their bedroom — after they’ve allegedly gone to sleep.

“Parents have to parent in this situation,” said Tufts Medical Center Pediatrician Dr. Laura Grubb. “Their teenager doesn’t need their phone at two in the morning. Parents need to set a structure and collect all electronics [at night].”

Still, she says, many parents have told her they can’t bring themselves to take away their child’s cell phone.

Teenagers have “more sleep demands” because they’re going through puberty and growing, she noted.

“Their circadian rhythms are shifting, and they naturally fall asleep later and wake up later,” Grubb said. “When teens are allowed to work with later school start times, they improve their performance in school.”

In addition, she said, they may have obligations, such as an after-school job or sports, preventing them from starting homework until after dinner.

As for a lack of sleep contributing to depression and risky behavior, Grubb said, “A lack of sleep doesn’t allow you to regulate your behavior and your thinking, and you might have an out-of-proportion emotional reaction. But mood can also affect your sleep. If you’re anxious and the wheels are turning in your head, you’re worried about this and that and your mind can’t slow down, you’re not sleeping.”

Grubb tells her patients that a lack of sleep “can make homework challenging. If a school assignment takes four hours because they’re unrested, it might take two or three if they’re rested. You need sleep to think.”

She also recommends her patients stick to a schedule when it comes to sleep, telling them napping after school will prevent them from falling asleep at night.

“A lack of sleep can make for a more impaired driver. You need sleep to have improved reaction times and to be able to concentrate. A lack of sleep can make you more impulsive and a lot less resilient [to life’s challenges],” Grubb said.

Doug Page is a Medfield father of two and award-winning writer whose newspaper career started in high school. He’s written stories, sold ads, and delivered newspapers during the morning’s wee hours. He’s covered stories as shocking as the crash of Delta flight 191 in Dallas many years ago to the recent controversy invog Common Core and standardized testing in Massachusetts.lvin